Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Worthy Cause: Gender and the Commodification of Desire

Figleaf had an interesting post yesterday reacting to Killing Us Softly III, the video on sexism in advertising that I've shown so often in class, I've just about memorized the script. He makes the point that not only does advertising propagate a rigid beauty ideal and the objectification of women, it also socializes men into rigid ideals of masculinity.

Now, Jean Kilbourne (the lecturer in the film) does say that "stereotypes wound everybody," men and women alike. But when it comes to analyzing men in advertising, she concentrates mainly on images of violent and emotionally stunted masculinity.

Figleaf's point is a different one. He argues that ads help teach men that in order to get the hottest girl, they need to measure up to an ideal that he calls "worthiness":
They teach women what they're supposed to look for, to sacrifice to achieve, to measure themselves against and ... they also teach men what we're supposed to strive for as well, what we're supposed to prove ourselves worthy in order to get. That's all bad enough -- obviously two rats in a squirrel wheel is *not* an improvement over only one. What's *particularly* bad, however, is that those ads teach men is how to use women to measure *our* achievement. In other words if there's a continuum for men that ranges from young man who's too shy to ask anyone out because he has no car, to the old man in the ad who's affluent enough to "have" women clamoring after him, then at each stage of that progression women in media are used, objectified, buried face down and legs up, stripped of humanity in favor of their utility as mile markers.
(Read his whole post here.)
I think this is a fruitful way to reframe the problem, not least because it may speak to the great majority of men who are not even tempted to become violent. (The violence problem, while all too real, is something I think Kilbourne overplays when she says objectification of women in ads inevitably leads to violence against women.) Figleaf's marvelous "squirrel wheel" image offers a chance to vastly expand the group of men who might find feminism relevant – who might find they'd actually stand to gain from gender equality.

His "mile marker" analogy also nicely captures how much more is at stake here than just who dates and marries whom. Much as women compete among themselves and establish hierarchies based on looks, men who conform to cultural expectations may view women as trophies marking their place in the food chain.

The French feminist Luce Irigaray writes that women are essentially regarded as commodities – and that as such, they have primarily exchange value rather than use value (if you want to spell it out in Marxian terms). The whole notion of "use value" as applied to sexuality may initially seem odd. First, keep in mind that there's a metaphorical dimension to this as well as a literal one. Second, insofar as we use our own bodies and those of others for pleasure, the predominance of exchange value helps explain why pleasure too often is secondary to status, and why the sociocultural order ultimately denies pleasure to men and women alike. (She suggests that one reason for stigmatizing homosexuality is that it short-circuits the commodification process and reclaims a right to pleasure.)
Woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself.
(Luce Irigarary, "Commodities among Themselves," in This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 193)
I remember thinking when I first read this nearly 20 years ago (!) that she overstates her case. I'd still be more fully persuaded if she'd strike that devilish word "only." But I think it's reasonable to claim that "exchange value" is a major explanation for why are expected to compete for the "hottest" women. Or is it just coincidence that from one end of the political spectrum to the other, our politicians so often sport trophy wives? I'm sure that the lovely young wives of Fred Thompson and Dennis Kucinich are also lovely human beings, but their spectacular good looks also serve to underscore their husbands' power. Even Kucinich's. You can't tell me that his leprechaun looks are the male counterpart to his wife's beauty.

These men clearly have proven themselves "worthy," as figleaf would put it. I'm still curious exactly what all fits under his rubric of "worthiness." It seems to me like it might have a lot of overlap with the four "rules of masculinity" that Deborah David and Robert Brannon expressed in the mid-1970s (which I know through Michael Kimmel's work). They are
1. No sissy stuff (don't ever act girly)
2. Be a big wheel (amass as much power and money as possible)
3. Be a sturdy oak (contain your emotions; be reliable at all costs)
4. Give 'em hell (be aggressive and take risks, preferably stupid ones)
On the surface of it, it seems like "be a big wheel" is closest to what figleaf means by worthiness. But I wonder if these "rules" aren't also partially fungible. That is, men who "fail" to become a big wheel might attempt to prove their worthiness in another realm of masculinity. I'm thinking of my former hair stylist who tended to meet men at the stock car races. They tended to be men in the "give 'em hell" mode, guys who proved themselves by drinking beer out of a can while driving and cutting out once a baby was on the scene. (The sadness of this is one reason I found a different stylist.) Another scenario is the guy who's uneducated with lousy job prospects but acts ultra-macho ("no sissy stuff"!) in order to appear worthy of women's desire.

One consequence of all this for men is that it may alienate them from becoming the person that they'd actually prefer to be. It may rob them of pleasure and happiness, insofar as it warps not just their choice of partner but their own behavior and sense of self. Irigaray suggests that the commodification of women may mediate "between man and himself." Doesn't this suggest that it first drives a wedge between a man and his truest self?

Of course, you could also argue that men, too, are commodified through women judging them on their worthiness. It's not precisely a mirror image of the commodification of women. For one thing men are much less likely to be literally commodified through such practices as sex trafficking or the mail-order bride business. For another, in women's case their looks are commodified, while for men it's money and power that primarily determine their exchange value. But it's still true that as long as "worthiness" matters, they too are reduced to a means to an end. And women's desires, too, may be warped away from the men who might actually make them happiest.

Commodifi-cat from I Can Has Cheezburger?


figleaf said...

"That is, men who "fail" to become a big wheel might attempt to prove their worthiness in another realm of masculinity."

As if you needed validation (since you could literally teach me all this stuff) that's exactly the way I see worthiness shaking out: you can be worthy financially, adventurously, cooly, or "bad-boy"ishly.

And speaking of teaching me all this stuff, I learned a lot from this post, Sungold. Thanks!


Sungold said...

You've gone and made me blush, figleaf. I'm willing to bet I've learned at least as much from you. And then some.

I like your four adverbs. They could probably stand in for about half of my post.

Don't quote me on Irigaray. I last studied her in grad school. I'm sure I've distorted something. I was amazed I even remembered enough to make the connection - and then find the book on my shelf. The funny thing is, it's much more comprehensible to me now than it was back then. If I weren't such a dilettante, I'd try to make some hay of that.

Thanks to you, too, figleaf!

Smirking Cat said...

Using these terms for women's and men's "exchange value", women's value decreases as they age (as youthful, not mature, looks are valued) and men's generally increase, if you assume wealth and power increase with age.

Ack, doesn't it seem like we should have advanced FAR past the pretty girl, rich boy determinations of worth by now?

Sungold said...

Yes, Smirking Cat, you're exactly right about the curves. Which is one reason we see older men, younger women couples far more often than the reverse.

And yeah, we should be beyond all this crap - but judging by my students, the tyranny of the beauty ideal, at least, seems worse than when I was growing up.